There’s a Much Different Feel to the 2021 Gopher Defense

Photo: Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

The 2019 Minnesota Gophers football season will go down as one of the greatest in school history. We could quickly be reminded, as years begin to pass by, how difficult it is to rack up 11 wins in a Big Ten season. A large part of the success that year was thanks to a core group of veterans, mostly defensive players, who blossomed into NFL-type talent right before our eyes.

Antoine Winfield Jr, Carter Coughlin, Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin led a sometimes bend, but rarely break, defense that was always hunting for their next game-changing big play. They led with their actions, both on and off the field, and demanded respect from teammates and opponents.

But, college doesn’t last forever and much like it did for most of us, the professional world came calling for that core group of Golden Gopher defensive leaders, who all caught on with NFL teams after leaving the U of M. What remained after their departure, however, was a massive hole through the heart of the Minnesota defense.

Learning on a 2020 Curve

Then, we enter the year that was 2020. COVID breaks out and the Big Ten panics. They and the PAC-12 cancel their season, expecting the other conferences to follow… but that doesn’t happen. Some schools, like Nebraska, continue to tell players they will have a season. The Gophers, along with others, tow the company line and shut down football activities.

As the story goes, the Big Ten would backtrack on their canceled season and teams would scramble to assemble squads, some more full than others. For the Minnesota defense, it meant a lot of turnover in the roster and a lot of playing time for kids who would never have seen the field in a normal season.

The results, when the dust settled on the 2020 shortened season, were unfortunate to say the least. The Gophers defense ranked (out of 127) in the bottom half of all 127 FBS teams in just about every defensive category (and beyond).

PTS/GM 69th
YDS/GM 71st
YDS/PLAY 122nd
PASS YDS 35th
RUSH YDS 102nd
PASS TD 59th
RUSH TD 103rd
FEI 98th
STOP RATE 71st

You don’t need a mathematics or football degree to realize Minnesota couldn’t stop getting run over by massive run plays last season. Still, you can see how poor their defense faired, beyond the default statistics we always look at. They ranked 98th in FEI (Football Outsiders) and 71st in Stop Rate (The Athletic), both used to gauge the overall effectiveness of a team’s defense.

So, what’s new?

PJ Fleck and his staff knew they had to help their defense along in the maturity process, after what they saw transpire last season. To do so, they tapped on the widely expanded and more immediately available NCAA transfer portal. There, they found some amazing patchwork to bolster their middle, adding DT Nyles Pinckney (Clemson), DT Val Martin (NC State) and ILB Jack Gibbens (Abilene Christian), all of who will get extensive playing time in 2021.

What has that done for the confidence of defensive coordinator Joe Rossi and the defensive leaders we get to talk to on a regular basis, like Senior LB Mariano Sori-Marin? It means a completely different attitude. Sori-Marin was crowned the leader of last year’s linebackers, since he was the only person with any experience after Kamal and Barber left. Much like he was with media at first, his play on the field was rocky, at best.

Now, Sori-Marin brims with confidence at the podium and talks with anticipation about what 2021 could hold for his much more experienced defense.

“We’ve got a lot of young guys that are going to be stepping up, but at the same time, we have a lot of older guys. Coach Fleck says it, our depth is our advantage. So, we’re going to have guys rotating in and out. We’re going to have a lot of different people on the field.”

“There’s a lot of leadership, a lot of older guys. Guys that have seen things, guys that have seen success and guys that have also seen tougher times in this defense. But, we’re excited to start putting that all together. This fall camp, we’re really starting to grow together, building that bridge between new guys and old guys and showing them how Gopher defense is going to be played this year.”

On the field

Obviously, the true test will come quickly, when the Minnesota Gophers host the Ohio State Buckeyes on September 2nd. But for now, what we know about the new and improved defense, is what we’ve been able to see in practice and what tone is set by those on the team who we get to hear from.

Lately, I’ve noted on multiple occasions the obvious optimism that surrounds this football team right now. And on the practice field Thursday night, we got to see why, when they held an open practice for media and fans at TCF Bank Stadium.

LB Braelen Oliver is back and looks as healthy and big as ever, which Sori-Marin also touched when speaking with media yesterday. Oliver, Gibbens and Mariano got a lot of run together in 11v11 drills yesterday, which intrigued me. The comfort of those two veterans next to him, combined with the help of Nyles Pinckney and Val Martin up front, is clearly something Mariano is excited for.

[Braelen Oliver] brings the energy every day. He brings the juice, he brings experience and he’s a playmaker, so having him back is tremendous. He’s a leader, he’s a great guy and we’re really excited to see what he has to bring this year.

Prove it

Tanner Morgan struggled to find open receivers all Thursday night, both in 11v11 and 7v7 drills. He threw multiple interceptions and looked a bit flustered, as he tried to sort everything out. Even before his #1 receiver Chris Auman-Bell left the game with an apparent leg injury, Morgan struggled and so did the rest of the QB room.

The running game had its moments, but you wouldn’t expect any defense to hold down Mo Ibrahim and one of the most talented group of running backs in the country. As practice started to get toward its twilight, one thing became clear relatively early. The defense was better than the offense, at least on this night.

Again, results will be what we judge this “new and improved” Minnesota Gophers defense on. But heading into the season, there certainly seems to be something different to the swagger of this unit.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan